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Protection of Existing Conditions

Part of Orders of the Day — Sex Discrimination Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 22nd October 1986.

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Photo of Mr John Evans Mr John Evans , St Helens North 6:30 pm, 22nd October 1986

It would be remiss of me if I did not offer a comment on the result of the vote that has just been announced. I can only assume that there have been substantial abstentions on the Government Benches. Apparently many of the Government's troops are missing for one reason or another. I can only hope that they are missing as a result of the force and power of the arguments put forward by myself and my hon. Friends. These arguments must have persuaded many Government Back-Bench Members to abstain on this important issue.

I would go further and take this opportunity to suggest that those Conservative Members who abstained in the previous vote should go a little further than that on the vote on new clause 2. I suggest that they should vote with the Opposition and we will carry the day.

Although the previous new clause was important, new clause 2 is even more important in relation to workers' rights. New clause 2 will make it illegal for a worker to be dismissed for refusing to work any periods previously forbidden under the legislation which is repealed by the Bill. Although it could be said that the previous new clause dealt with more academic issues such as giving workers the right to have a vote on changes in their terms and conditions of employment, new clause 2 is even more fundamental. It will extend protections to workers if they refuse to work the new hours which an employer might impose upon them.

New clause 2 and the new schedule follow on from old clause 7, which was inserted in the Bill in another place with all-party support. Sadly, clause 7 was removed by the Government in Committee. The gist of the new clause and the old clause is similar. The new schedule would tighten some of the drafting criticisms made by the Government about my noble Friend Lord McCarthy's clause 7. It is interesting to note that the Government always criticize the drafting of Opposition amendments which prove to be difficult. The Government know as well as I do that it is not the drafting which is the issue but the principle of the amendment. In this case, I hope that the Minister will spare us any criticisms about the Opposition's lack of ability in drafting the schedule and will concentrate upon the principle involved.

What we are trying to do can best be understood by a brief examination of the paragraphs in the new schedule. Paragraphs 1 and 2 make it unlawful to take any action, including dismissal, against any employee who refuses to do work that, before the passing of the Bill, would not have been allowed. For instance, women in factories will not be dismissed because they refuse to work for more than 48 hours a week or nine hours a day — one would assume that a Government would be anxious to maintain such a provision—or outside the hours of 7 am and 8 pm. They will not have to work for more than four and a half hours without a break. Again, that is a civilised provision that one would assume that the Minister would be only too happy to accept. Such criteria are similar to those in the Mines and Quarries Act and the Factories Act. These unfair dismissal procedures will also apply to men working in the baking industry.

It is worth putting on record again what my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) said about the hours being worked in the baking industry. He talked in terms of 72-hour weeks and 12-day shifts. It is a legitimate fear of the men and women who work in the baking industry that once the protective legislation is repealed they will go back to the situation of 1954, before the passage of the Act, when they were at the mercy of ruthless competition, working awful hours in awful conditions. I suspect that they will be proved right. However, if, before the passage of the Bill, workers have agreed to work outside the prohibited hours, the clause and schedule will not apply. That is the effect of paragraph 3 Paragraph 4 dispenses with the usual criteria for qualification periods for unfair dismissal claims. Paragraphs 5 to 9 relate to other technicalities, compensation, and so on.

If any Tory Back Benchers, or even the Minister, have taken the trouble to read the new clause and schedule, they may have realised that there are certain parallels with a clause and schedule in the ill-fated Shops Bill. It is worth recalling that the infamous Shops Bill was defeated by people coming together from all parts of the House in voting down unnecessary and ill-considered legislation. I hope that all those Tory Back Benchers who abstained in the vote on new clause I will join us in the Lobby, particularly after I have drawn to their attention the fact that this clause and schedule are similar to those in the Shops Bill.

Apart from several certain technical alterations, the two clauses in the two schedules are virtually identical, and this is intentional. The schedule was introduced in the Shops Bill by the Government in the other place. Our contention is that the parallels between those working in shops and those affected by the Bill, and the effects of both Bills, are such that there should be no reason for the Government to oppose our new clause and schedule. I do not expect the Government to object to our proposition on spurious drafting grounds.

In Committee, Ministers constantly stated that the previous clause 7 would cause great difficulties for employers because they would have to cope with a two-tier work force—that is, those who were employed before the Bill became law and those who started work afterwards. However, the Government saw no problems with a two-tier work force in shops. The Minister in the other place, the noble Lord Glenarthur, said on the Shops Bill: The reason why the Bill distinguishes between existing and future shopworkers is clear and straightforward. It will radically alter the position of existing shopworkers, many of whom may have been attracted to shopwork in the first instance because they would not have to work on a Sunday. I can well understand the concern of existing shopworkers, and our proposals recognise their special position. But I do not believe that a similar consideration applies to new recruits". — [Official Report, House of Lords, 21 January 1986; Vol. 471, c. 223.] The Government were content with a two-tier system as a result of the Shops Bill.

6.45 pm

The noble Lord Glenarthur was to renounce the sacred Tory doctrine on opposing protected conditions on three more occasions during the passage of the Shops Bill through the other place. Worse was to come a few weeks later when he announced a small concession to extend such rights to existing shopworkers who subsequently changed employers. In other words, workers who would have retained their rights and positions in a particular shop would have maintained those rights if they changed employers. This was done in response to a remark in Committee by Lord Wolfson who warned that failure to extend the right could well lead to resentment and would not be helpful to good human relations in the trade. Possibly more critical was his comment: It could also have the effect, which is not intended, of prohibiting occupational change."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 February 1986; Vol. 471, c.177.] The Government saw no parallels with the Sex Discrimination Bill. The problems of a two-tier work force were suddenly of paramount importance. The right not to be unfairly dismissed, so important in shops, was now an "outdated and outmoded restriction". That was what Lord Trefgarne said on 11 March. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary omitted to mention that one way to cope with a two-tier work force was to talk to and negotiate with it. He was not aware that there are already many two-tier work forces. Perhaps most importantly, he never mentioned that in almost all instances, after the Sex Discrimination Bill becomes law, there will be a two-tier work force. This will be because of the restrictions to which women are subjected, which will also cover young people. However, for the moment, as the Minister confirmed in his comments about section 114 of the Factories Act, yound people are still protected, and that will continue under the scope of the relevant sections of the Mines and Quarries Acts as well as the Factories Acts. In any case, when arguing about old clause 7, the then Parliamentary Secretary claimed that parallels with Sunday trading were not correct. Sunday working had never been a relevant prospect for women, whereas shift work had always been a prospect, with the possibility of a health and safety exemption. There is some truth in that, but it omits the fact that the work force had the chance of either protesting against prohibited work and/or bargaining for better conditions against an exemption order.

In 1984–85 the factory inspectorate granted more than 4,000 special exemption orders, covering 200,000 women, 80,000 of which were relevant to night work. An exemption order is hardly ever refused. This begs the question: why are we abolishing the process? When the Auld committee recommended in its report on Sunday trading the deregulation of shops, it also stated that this should occur within the framework of continued wages councils protection. As it said in paragraph 288: We also urge that there should be proper enforcement of the Wages Council Orders, by an adequately staffed Wages Council Inspectorate. In fact, the number of inspectors has decreased by one third since the Government came to office. The Wages Bill will reduce the total staff from 223 to 145, of whom only half are inspectors. This is directly relevant to the Sex Discrimination Bill as the wages inspectorate covers the baking industry. The Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 is to be repealed and in the not too distant future we will see the net result of that. Has the Minister a date in mind for repeal of that Act?

There was quite a campaign throughout Britain by supporters and opponents of the Shops Bill. By February 1986 the Prime Minister had received 100 replies in favour of the Shops Bill and some 34,000 against. The parallels between the two Bills are obvious. Some 63 per cent. of shopworkers are women and the Sex Discrimination Bill affects women most directly. Opposition to the Shops Bill was divided between the effect of such legislation on society and its implications for the work force. Both effects apply equally to the current Bill.

Even in their particulars the Bills show similarities.Shopworkers could not work for more than five hours without a 20-minute break. For factory workers the limit is four and a half hours and they must have a break of half an hour. The arguments about similiarity are thus reduced to the degree of effect of repeal. However, the essence is the same. A previous Parliamentary Secretary said in Committee that the Government did not expect the Sex Discrimination Bill, to prompt radical changes in hours immediately. He also said: There is no evidence to suggest that the removal of restrictions on women's hours of work will result in employers imposing radical changes in working patterns, forcing women to work at night or work unsocial hours against their will." —[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 26 June 1986; C. 93, 160.] That begs the question: why go to so much trouble to repeal the relevant legislation? If employers will not take advantage of it, why are we wasting parliamentary time? There is evidence to support the belief that employers have been awaiting such a repeal. In recent years there has been a considerable increase in night hours being worked.